NEW CASE UPDATE
Mercury Casualty Co. v. City of Pasadena, 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 732
The Court of Appeal Determines That a Tree Qualifies as a Work of Public Improvement For Purposes of Inverse Condemnation if the Tree is Deliberately Planted by or at the Direction of the Government Entity as Part of a Planned Project or for a Public Purpose or Use
City of Pasadena (City) owns more than 60,000 trees as part of its “urban forest” and adopted city-wide policies for protecting, maintaining, and removing trees that are part of the City’s urban forest. In 2011, a storm brought hurricane-force winds to City uprooting more than 2,000 trees. One of those trees fell on a home, insured by Mercury Casualty Company (Mercury), causing severe property damage.
In 2012, Mercury sued City for inverse condemnation alleging City was liable for the damage caused to the insureds’ home because City owned the tree. After a four day bench trial, the trial court entered judgment in Mercury’s favor, finding the tree that fell on the insureds’ home was a work of public improvement that supported an inverse condemnation claim. The court awarded Mercury $800,000 in damages for insurance benefits paid to the insureds, and an additional $329,170 in costs under Code of Civil Procedure § 1036.
On appeal, however, the Court found that City was not inversely liable because the tree that fell on the insureds’ home did not constitute a work of public improvement. The Court of Appeal agreed with City that there was no evidence that City planted the tree as part of a construction project serving a public purpose, such as a roadway beautification project to support finding a public improvement. Therefore, the court reversed the judgment and post-judgment order awarding costs.
This ruling stands as a reminder that courts will continue to entertain assertions that an urban forestry program can constitute a public improvement for purposes of inverse condemnation liability. The cause of action, which carries with it entitlement to expert and attorney fees, remains viable whenever a street tree causes property damage.